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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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What is God?: The Personal God

February 26th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 20 Comments

First post in a series…

I am not theologically trained, I’m just an electronic or software engineer that turned amateur theology into my official thesis procrastination project. (This was a part of the process of deconstructing and defeating the harmful memes that had lodged themselves in my mind, as well as figuring out how best to help other people stuck with harmful memes. But I digress.) During this time, I came to understand more of what I believe is taught to people studying theology. This post is based on that. I’d love it if some of the theology students reading this blog, or any other theologically educated person, could comment on my understanding (or lack thereof).

In theological language, every human has a god. Their god is the thing by which they direct their lives, that thing that serves as their moral compass, that influences their decision making. Let’s start with some simple, stereotypical examples…

The alcoholic has a life ruled in part by alcohol. The drug addict, drugs. This influences their ethics (consider drug-induced theft, etc), their behaviour (while under the influence), their motivation in life (figuring out where and when to get the next fix). In theological language, one could say that alcohol is the alcoholic’s god, drugs the junkie’s god, etc. (I realise I’m over-simplifying the situation, please bear with me and understand what I’m trying to communicate, rather than poking at the holes.)

The psychopath, or the serial killer rather, to take another extreme-stereotypical example, is someone who has in some ways made himself his god. He goes around deciding who lives and who dies, without much care for any other kind of authority, they have become their own ultimate authority. On a much lighter note, I’d suggest a number of stereotypical celebrities also have a strong element of self-worship going on.

I’m sure the “god-shaped hole” is something most of my readers would have heard of by now? There is something in this remarkable human creature that has a particular desire to attach itself to some guiding principle in life.

It does seem some people are trying to turn Darwinism or evolution into their god, caring only about game theory or survival as the ultimate truth in their lives. (Such people would argue for altruism only for its survival benefits.) How our altruism or morality evolved is not important in this discussion, that’s “Lah”. We live and experience on the level of “Meh”. We believe in compassion and the golden rule as a guiding principle, not because we had a debate with our genes and our genes convinced us through better rhetoric that compassion is a better choice…

This is potentially one of the big breaks in communication between “sophisticated” theologians and atheists, they’re not talking about the same kind of God concept. The atheist often talks of “god”, referring only to the supernatural, while the “sophisticated” theologian would like to know what the atheist’s “god” is, i.e. what concepts he has guiding his life. What has the atheist, what has Dawkins, for example, filled his “god-shaped hole” with? (Science and empiricism plays a big role for him, clearly, and guides most of his life?)

I’d like my readers to each contribute descriptions of their god. You don’t have to call it “god”, you can also name fictional characters if you like. Christians: please try to refrain from citing scripture or dogma. Please describe your “god” in terms of values. (A God of love? Compassion? Or a God of jealousy and punishment?)

The humanist, for example, would be worshipping a “God of compassion/love and reason…” Feel free to drop the “god” part, I’m just explaining the language. Some people have “humanity”, community, or our grand interconnectedness, as a kind of “god”. Some people have a pantheistic notion of “existence as a whole”, the universe, being “god”.

In my post about the Golden Compass, I quoted Timothy Mills:

…she is only reacting to what Pullman rejects and condemns in his books; she makes no mention of what he promotes. Inquiry. Curiosity. Maturity. Compassion. Determination. Loyalty. Opposing tyranny and evil.

If that were to be described in “theological” language as “a God of inquiry, curiosity, maturity, compassion, determination, loyalty and opposition to tyranny and evil”, it would sound much like the kind of God Christians are supposed to be worshipping, right?

So, according to what values and principles do you direct your life? Where do you find your meaning in life? What values and principles would you be prepared to die for? Or more interestingly, what would you live for? Please try to be as constructive as possible, and try your best to leave phantoms and other people’s baggage outside. Thanks.

Categories: Worldviews
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20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Al Lovejoy // Feb 27, 2008 at 1:21 am

    Abba – Father! And the heart of my Father is towards His children…

  • 2 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 27, 2008 at 4:01 am

    So, according to what values and principles do you direct your life? Where do you find your meaning in life? What values and principles would you be prepared to die for? Or more interestingly, what would you live for? Please try to be as constructive as possible, and try your best to leave phantoms and other people’s baggage outside. Thanks.

    I’ll bite my tongue and try.

    I value human health and happiness, especially of those close to me, and also other beings’ health and happiness (though less than humans.) I find meaning in my life in joy, companionship, music, ideas, stories, books, knowledge, etc. I don’t think I’m prepared to die for any values or principles; just for people. The question about what I would live for is the same as finding meaning in life, IMO.

  • 3 Hugo // Feb 27, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Thanks!

    I don’t think I’m prepared to die for any values or principles; just for people

    Wife and children, I suppose, eh?

  • 4 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 27, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Wife and children, I suppose, eh?

    Yep.

  • 5 Hugo // Feb 27, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Rinus dropped a link to an article about Einstein’s “faith journey” in a comment on another post.

    I wonder if I misrepresented what I’m trying to say here. In the light of a deism similar to Einstein’s, I could extend the “personal God” idea to “an idea of something that’s greater than yourself”. Your morality, your family, your values, your principles, or the universe, humanity, community… etc. Repeating all of the above again.

    Just a way to extend this notion above into a direction that can embrace deism/pantheism/etc a little more explicitly.

    *ponder*

  • 6 Mon'Siret // Feb 27, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Hugo

    What is God? The Christian answer:

    The concept of God was different for many people throughout the ages. The interesting thing is something that guy from the Nooma series once said about te concept of God in the Hebrew history. I think that this is something one should always keep in mind. If all gods were seemingly first created in the image of man (the Greeks, the Romans etc) having characteristics of war/overpowering the weak/manuiplation of their people asking offerings etc. the Hebrews did not seem to have that problem. (Given the Hebrews sometimes lost the plot as well, but always to the detriment and subsequent repentance of the people)

    “They were much less concerned with the fact that God exists and more interested in what He was like.” (see Rythm as part of Nooma)

    The Word is therefore the wonderful revelation, not of a moral code, a ethical principal, but of the personality of God (given most people don’t read the Bible as this, but rather as a list of things to do to please God)

    God wanted us to understand who He is, but He did not make us to be able to define Him.

    The secular idea: (And I think that this is probably the one that this blog is interested in.)

    From the psychology, it seems that there is an ever present dependency from man on “another”. Be it an “-ism” the form of emotional, physical, financial or other dependency or the necessity to prove with logic or force that: I am independent! The cry of the athiest for reason to be victorious and the ethical scholar to see his moral code be held in the highest regard.

    And in the words of Bob Dylan:
    “You’re gonna have to serve Somebody…”

    My idea:

    What is God? He IS a personal God. And He has proven the One that i may serve with dignity and joy, because He has died for me (does that make me God’s god with reference to Hugo’s post about not dying for principles, but wife and children?)

    m

  • 7 Hugo // Feb 27, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    I misunderstand your last sentence.

    Thanks for your contribution. And I love Rob Bell. (He’s the guy that made/makes the “Nooma videos”.)

  • 8 Pieter // Feb 28, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Ben-Jammin': Right on, beautiful. My guiding hand is much the same.

    Here’s a slightly different interpretation:
    I want to live a life that works in a society that works.

  • 9 Negate // Feb 28, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    >Their god is the thing by which they direct their lives, that thing that serves as their moral compass, that influences their decision making.

    My life is directed by the goals I set for myself. My moral compass I believe was already instilled in my being because of my family, what they thought was right and wrong. I don’t feel the need to do anyone harm, I have no moral compass, but I have natural occurring feeling of morals because of observations of my family.My decision making is influenced by my goals, my personal biases and of course personal and social gain. Hugo you talked of love, compassion, all those ‘gods’ i could easily have observed in my family. Are you not merely here replacing god with socially acceptable behavior? I dont think people are stupid, by merely observing your surroundings you will observe we are all depended on each other. Hate and evil is the result of trust, dependency and bonds being severed. A recent study has shown more than 80% of serial killers were abused as children. His does not have himself as god Hugo, his god(family) has let him down! He has no basis of what being human is, because he never had the proper opportunity with god(family)

    My God by which i direct my life would then be the example my family has set for me and my own personal ambitions that I developed.
    When one acts unmoral in the group context you will be shut out by the group, or scolded. Compassion, love, moral compass, my god in this context is the behavior of my family.

    Hugo : God, someone you can look up to, someone who influences your life with guidance not control. What you say is true :
    “emotional, physical, financial or other dependency or the necessity to prove with logic or force that: I am independent! The cry of the athiest for reason to be victorious”

    While under the influence of abusers you will feel controlled not guided. While under the influence of manipulators you will feel controlled not guided. When i believed in the majorities Christians “god” i felt controlled not guided.

    > So, according to what values and principles do you direct your life? Where do you find your meaning in life? What values and principles would you be prepared to die for? Or more interestingly, what would you live for?

    This is not a easy answer. My life is directed my the values and principles that society has discovered, over time, to be the best way for social harmony and equilibrium. I have learned these valuable life lessons by observations and experiences. I’m still searching for meaning in life, it is an extremely difficult question.

  • 10 Negate // Feb 28, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    >His does not have himself as god Hugo, his god(family) has let him down!

    ** the “his” is suppose to be serial killer!

  • 11 Hugo // Feb 29, 2008 at 12:41 am

    Negate, what you describe is a “God of community”, yes. The “serial killer” lives a life that is cut off from community, a life devoid of compassion and love. Living a cut-off life like that: hell. Getting reacquainted and reconnected to community, to love, to compassion: salvation.

  • 12 Christoff // Feb 29, 2008 at 6:28 am

    My definition:
    “God” is that “personification” of the specific morals/ideals/answers-to-tough-questions/purpose you hold dear.

    Example: If love and compassion is important to you and you feel the need to attach these qualities to something/someone (ie persony them), you’ll most probably attach them to a God of some sorts.

    Yes, (like Hugo pointed out), even some atheists have gods. Darwinism is SO important to some of them that they nearly worship the idea!

    Another example from Mon’Siret’s post:
    “God wanted us to understand who He is, but He did not make us to be able to define Him”? In other words, you define your god as something/someone who CAN NOT be known. A being that, by definition, cannot be defined in detail. You DID define one aspect of your god though, and that is that he’s male.

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  • 15 Kenneth Oberlander // Apr 29, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Hmmm…

    The way you have defined God is so generalised as to be almost meaningless to me. We may as well call the guiding principles of each persons life karma, or the Prime Entelechy, or steak and chips, or ping pong. Its a definition thing. I hesitate to call the principles and morals that I adhere to “filling the God-shaped hole”.

  • 16 Hugo // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    This was less of a definition than a discussion on the function of the belief. The principles and morals you adhere to, are too far removed from the classic understanding of “God”, which is why you don’t call yourself a theist.

    Does that make sense? I’m looking into the role that God plays in the theist’s worldview.

  • 17 Hugo // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    …and in asking for your equivalent, I suppose I’m effectively asking “so why don’t *you* need God, why are *you* not a theist? What do you structure *your* life around?”

  • 18 Kenneth Oberlander // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    I see I missed the point slightly…apologies.

    I don’t think my morals are very far removed from what most people would regard as Christian. Here it is important to point out that many “Christian” morals are indeed shared by the majority of societies, simply because they are morals that allow a society to function. No society would be able to function without general ethical rules like do not lie, do not kill, do not covet…they are by no means just Christian values.

    I think where I differ from a Christian viewpoint is that I don’t think these moral values are derived from a God-figure. Many theistic arguments begin with the a priori assumption that no matter what your religious preference, morals are derived from God. I see no need for such an assumption.

    Belief…is a great thing in certain contexts. It allows people to hang on when there is no rational chance of doing so. No doubt it helped our ancestors do things that otherwise would never have been attempted. It gives hope when there is none. But it is also completely subjective, and in its pure form unchangeable. It is as narrow and divisive as it is (potentially) fulfilling and uplifting. And it comes into utter conflict with reality on many many occasions. Consequently a belief should generally be judged against some more objective criterion before accepting it.

  • 19 Hugo // Apr 30, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I think where I differ from a Christian viewpoint is that I don’t think these moral values are derived from a God-figure. Many theistic arguments begin with the a priori assumption that no matter what your religious preference, morals are derived from God. I see no need for such an assumption.

    Agreed. The theistic naming and personification of the source of morals as “God” is something that was possibly popularised by CS Lewis (Mere Christianity). So what the theist and the non-theist has in common, explained by a non-theist to a theist: “we both believe there is a reason to be good and moral, I just don’t call the source of my morality ‘God’, I don’t attribute it to a conscious entity.” How does that sound? (Helping me hack out my wording for my post about “Mere Christianity”, which I have started writing, but might only finish when I’m back home where I can check the book again.)

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